Jan 19, 2010

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four begins with Mr Sherlock Holmes placidly shooting up some cocaine in his home. I kid you not! But his afternoon entertainment, is, alas, interrupted when a new case demands his attention. A lady by the name of Mary Morstan visits Holmes and Dr Watson, and tells them about the suspicious disappearance of her father some years back, right after his return from India. The disappearance, however, is only the start of the mystery. Someone who believes Ms Morstan suffered a great injustice has been sending her valuable parcels for some years. And now that someone wants to meet her face to face.

The Sign of Four is very Victorian, both in the worst and in the best possible ways. It’s deliciously atmospheric: full of foggy and gas-lit streets and a sense of menace and expectation. It’s also full of the examples of the hocus-pocus Victorian notion of science, which always make me simultaneously smile and roll my eyes. Examples:
It was a September evening, and not yet seven o'clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.
"I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule. Have you ever had occasion to study character in handwriting? What do you make of this fellow's scribble?"
"It is legible and regular," I answered. "A man of business habits and some force of character."
Holmes shook his head. "Look at his long letters," he said. "They hardly rise above the common herd. That d might be an a, and that l an e. Men of character always differentiate their long letters, however illegibly they may write. There is vacillation in his k's and self-esteem in his capitals.
Unfortunately, some of the other ways in which this book is very Victorian include helpless and frail ladies in distress, class prejudice, and blatant racism—with references to “savages” becoming increasingly frequent as the story progresses. This was ultimately part of why the plot itself didn’t work for me—but more on that soon.

Lest anyone assume otherwise: I didn’t dislike The Sign of Four, but I think it’s the weakest of the Sherlock Holmes novels I’ve read so far, and I can certainly see why isn’t as popular as A Study in Scarlet or The Hound of the Baskervilles. It hasn’t aged nearly as well. One thing I very much liked was the Holmes/Watson dynamics. I’m not sure whether this is a heretic thing to say, but I like Dr Watson a lot more than I like Sherlock Holmes. But what I like the most is seeing them together. It's Watson’s presence that humanises Holmes. It’s the fact that we see the great detective through his loyal friend’s eyes that keeps the former’s arrogance, detachment and cold calculating nature from ever becoming off-putting or unpleasant. Watson is kind, and Watson admires Holmes; therefore, we grow to like him as well.

As for the mystery itself: I’m beginning to see (and seriously, if I’d only taken a moment to think I’d have known this all along) that mysteries are like fantasy books. It’s not really about the mystery, just like it’s never really about the fantasy elements. In this case, there were things beyond the mystery that I liked, and thanks to those I’m glad I read The Sign of Four. But as I was saying earlier, after a certain point the plot completely crumbled for me. This happened because to suspend my disbelief, I would be required to buy into a racist worldview. To believe in the mystery is to believe in dark-skinned “savages” with uncontrollable murderous urges; to believe in sub-human monsters; to silence all the questions that any contemporary reader can’t help (I hope) but ask. And that's not something I could bring myself to do.

I’m not sure why I keep reading Sherlock Holmes novels when everyone tells me the short stories are much better. I promise I’ll read those soon.

Other opinions:
Just a (Reading) Fool

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. You didn't know Holmes was a drug addict? He's also a woman hater, which makes me wonder about the recent series...

    I'm like you were with this book when it comes to movies. When an actor does something so completely outrageous that I can no longer forget that fact when I see him on the screen, I don't bother with his movies any more. So far, when it comes to books, I can divorce myself from past idiotic behavior by reminding myself that it is past and it has, for the most part, changed. It's been a long time since I've read this story; I may have to drag it out and give it another go.


  2. I suppose nothing should surprise me, since I've yet to read any Sherlock Holmes, but a coke head? That's a new one! Was that acceptable back then? Interesting. You learn something new every day.

  3. Ugh between the cocaine and the racism, I think I'll skip this.

  4. Your reaction is interesting because also in The Eye of The Crow (when he is 13) I found I liked the other characters better than Sherlock!

  5. I am seeing Sherlock Holmes in a whole new light and not in a good way. I had no idea he was a junkie or a woman hater. Perhaps the new film has shown him in his true colours, unlike the traditional BBC portrayals.

    I love the descriptions of Victorian London. I love the idea of gas lamps and thick fog. I get excited these days, by a bit of fog. It has such a mysterious quality to it.

  6. Vivienne - remember, that London fog is not really fog, but something rather worse. After England passed a Clean Air Act, the famous "fog" went away!

    Nymeth, I think I'll still read this soon, as part of my Scottish Literature Challenge, but it will be out of a sense of duty. Thank goodness it is short.

    Did you think that the mystery in A Study in Scarlet was any better? I thought the setup was fine, but the second half of the book (Utah and on) was terrible.

  7. "It's Watson’s presence that humanises Holmes." Yes! It is really the dynamic between the two that makes (or in this case salvages) some of the stories. One representing intellect and the other humanism or emotion. Doyle manages a balancing act between them very successfully.

    I don't really like to judge characters too much. They are fictional. In this case, they inhabited a very distant time also. Yes, Holmes is a semi-misogynistic drug addict. But that is not all there is to him. And is a very small part of the stories. Racism - yes, especially offensive but again, reflective of a cultural norm at the time. I actually think that it is interesting to assess an historical period by reading its popular lit.

    But I agree that this is not one of the best Holmes outings. And that the short stories are more enjoyable. So happier Holmes reading in the future to you.

  8. I haven't read this one, just "The Hound of The Baskervilles" and some short stories but I will reiterate what Frances said about judging characters.
    I think I'll skip this one and "A Study In Scarlet" instead.

  9. I've been wanting to read a Sherlock Holmes novel ever since I saw the movie - this doesn't sound like the one to start with. Thanks for the review.

  10. I am with you, Nymeth, this one really fell short for me, especially in close comparison to A Study in Scarlet.

    I have slowly started reading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and they are fun, but find them frothier and harder to read in quick succession. This might just be that I'm not a very good short story reader, or perhaps that the stories are less than stellar early on. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts!

  11. I loved that point you made about how the whole plot really crumbled for you. I know we've talked some before about this...about racism in older books. About how it can be difficult to stomach even while trying to keep in mind the times in which a book was written. I think I would be very much like you in this case...being able to accept a book that requires you accept the racism that it's built on...yeah, well, that's just asking too much.

    Whoa...this is your first non-winner of the year, isn't it? That's saying something considering how much you've managed to read already. :D

  12. I've read, or reread, all the Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories several times. when you read those, especially if the collection is in chronological order, you get a better feel for the characters and can see things develop better. I think Holmes is a people hater in general who somehow let Watson get close enough to become his friend. Watson definitely redeems Holmes.

  13. I've always planned on reading these eventually so it is nice to hear your thoughts even when you don't like the story itself. Thanks for sharing!

  14. CJ: I remember some references to his drug addiction in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but other than that, I didn't. I'm a total Holmes newbie! As for the misogyny, it's very hard to avoid in Victorian lit in general, but in this case the impression I got was more like Melanie's - that he's a people hater in general.

    Sandy: It was definitely more acceptable back then (Freud even enthusiastically recommended it to his patients), which is part of why I noted it! I meant it more as a historical curiosity than as a judgement, really.

    Amanda: I didn't dislike it, but I can see why it wouldn't be for you.

    Jill: I think his unpleasantness is part of what makes him so iconic, though.!

    Vivienne: I wouldn't call him in particular a woman hater, actually, but opinions vary! And yeah, like Amateur Reader said, the smog was nasty, but it DOES add atmosphere to books :P I love those descriptions as well.

    Amateur Reader: The smog and the Clear Air Act actually play a big role in the book I'm currently reading, Un Lun Dun! A Study in Scarlet worked better for me, but I can see what you mean. For me that book was almost a lesson on how mysteries have evolved. It was curious to note that there was no way the reader could guess the outcome, since the explanation fully relied on information we didn't have.

    Frances: I actually agree with you - it's just that I'm bad at expressing myself! I don't like judging characters either, and I didn't note the drug use disapprovingly - I just thought it was an interrsting historical curiosity. As for the racism, I didn't mean to judge Holmes or Watson in particular for it - it's just that because accepting their worldview was fundamental for the mystery to work, that aspect of the book fell apart for me.

    Gavin, I agree with you two too. It's just that I'm a rubbish writer and can't explain myself properly :P

    Kathy: The Hound of the Bakervilles was a fantastic starting point for me!

    Steph: I can definitely see myself enjoying them more in small doses. I'll keep what you said in mind!

    Debi: I can stop circumstantial comments from ruining a book for me, but in this case, the whole plot relies on it. Anyway, I have another meh post saved for later this week :P

    Melanie: I'll make sure to read them in chronological order, then! And I agree with you about how he's more of a misanthrope in general.

    Sam, it was still worth reading, even if the plot is not my favourite.

  15. I remember being stunned by the coke addiction. I remember reading that Conan Doyle regretted putting that in there.

    I also much prefer Watson. Don't know who could not ;-)

  16. Yes, I agree with the person who said something to the effect that the imperfections you see in Holmes humanize him--and that goes along with what you say about how we like him because Watson does.

    I wouldn't go so far as to call him a "junkie." One of the things I liked about RDJr's portrayal of the character is that he seemed to get Holmes' need for constant stimulation.

  17. Aarti, I was mostly surprised it was so casual! But of course, it didn't have quite the social implications it does now. Also, I'm glad I'm not alone in my love for Watson :P

    Jeanne: I actually regret mentioning the opening scene at all. I didn't think much of it, but I expressed myself inadequately and ended up sounding judgemental and disapproving. I mostly mentioned it because it was so surprising for me, and so different from what we'd expect today. And I agree that Holmes' flaws are part of the appeal!

  18. I have this book on my shelves, but I think I would be better off reading the short stories and leaving this one for last. It sounds like there was a host of objectionable material in this book, and since I haven't read much Conan Doyle, I don't want to start off on the wrong foot! I do agree with you that Watson is a bit more appealing than Holmes!

  19. I haven't read any Conan Doyle in ages (years and years, I am getting so old ;) ) but after the Mary Russell books I think I may pick one of two up.

  20. You are a great writer and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. So sorry to have come across that way! I was as much reacting to the comments as what you wrote in that section. But again, loved your points about the Holmes/Watson connection, and completely agree about this book being a weak link in an otherwise strong chain.

  21. I've been meaning to read the Holmes short stories, but I think I'll hold off a while longer and see what you think first. I checked out a volume of Annotated Holmes from the library a few weeks ago and returned it unread - shame!

  22. I'll probably skip this one. I haven't read even a single Holmes novel or short story yet. But I saw the movie :)

    Somehow I'm not into mysteries a lot.

  23. Zibilee: Everyone seems to agree that the short stories are better, yes. But I started with The Hound of the Bakervilles and that was a great starting place as well.

    Fence: Yeah, Laurie R. King is pretty much responsible for me reading this right now :P

    Frances: Nooo, don't apologise! I know you weren't suggesting that at all! I just felt that I miscommunicated because re-reading the post I sounded judgemental to myself :P And I wanted to make sure you and Gavin and everyone knew that wasn't how I meant my comment. But please don't be sorry!

    Jenny: Oooh, an annotated edition would be great!

    Violet: I used to think I wasn't either, but I've been changing my mind :P

  24. Ohhhh! I am going to have to add this to my classics book list!!!

  25. ack! Sounds like one to skip. I am NOT a fan of mysteries and all the "other stuff" about this novel just doesn't sound like me. I'd always wanted to try Sherlock Holmes, but maybe I'll try something else first.

  26. I used to have the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes when I was young...darn I wish I had that book now. I'd love to read a few of the stories to see what I think!

  27. April: Another advantage is that it's a really quick read!

    Rebecca: Yeah, this is probably not the best starting place!

    Kathleen: I have a lovely hardcover edition of the complete short stories, but - shame on me - I've yet to read it :(

  28. I thought that this was a pretty racist book too, when I first read it, and it drove me pretty mad to read Indians being described like that. And Holmes doesn't have a high opinion of women either. But ultimately, Sherlock Holmes books are more about the detecting than anything else. The backstory I found boring and unbelievable, but the mystery solving engrossed me. That's the best thing about Holmes' short stories, you are not encumbered by the entire history of the character; you just get to enjoy Holmes' superlative mental abilities.

  29. I have not yet read Sherlock Holmes Books **ouch, I am hiding now**

    But I have seen The Hound of Baskervilles, the movie! And I liked it very much!

    I am sure this is not the best starting place, but I really like what you say about Holes Friend! I really am starting to like him already!

  30. I too was shocked at the blatant use of racist remarks in the novel.But I presume this was commonplace in the times Sir Connan Doyle existed :(

  31. Let me start by clearly stating I am fully opposed to racism. However I find it's inclusion in period literature to be something to seek to understand as it reveals something about society and our hopeful progression as a whole. Doyle was a complex person. He went to the defense of Slater and Hadaji (sp) to right an injustice that he felt was driven by racism. His story the Yellow face reveals racism of the time and yet appears to support inter-racial marriage.
    One more note, I also oppose violence but understand it's place in a story. I don't skip stories because they include things that expose a distasteful side of humanity.

  32. Anonymous, I am quite honestly baffled as to why you got the impression that I recommend people skip this story, or that I believe the racism has nothing whatsoever to do with its historical context.

  33. I hope you don't mind me saying it, but this review is full of lolz :) I don't know why but I totally have visions of Holmes in a bandana, talking to Watson about popping a cap in someone's ass while 'placidly shooting up some cocaine in his home'. I was so disappointed that the BBC made modern Holmes a smoker in the recent adaptation - it just seemed like avoiding the issue (though intrigued by Aarti saying Doyle regretted writing that in).

    And I giggled about your comments on Victorian science because yes, handwriting analysis, craniology - you are too funny Victorians (not that in all seriousness I would judge them for having odd scientific views you know, every generation has things that will be dispproved as ludicrously bad science in the future, but sometimes it is hard not to be amused). I dread to think what pieces of our scientific theory people will be chuckling over in the future. It is tempting to write some crazy science theories and seal them into a vault for future people to find and be astounded over.

    To be serious *ahem* I loved what you said about liking Watson best. He is my favourite! You're right, if we didn't have Watson, we would all hate Holmes (aren't there characters in the stories who, without the benefit of Watson explaining why Holmes is such a good guy, find Holmes arrogant, or accuse him of using trickery?). So enlightening as to why we all put up with Holmes less attractive traits.

  34. I'm really conflicted about the racism in Enid Blyton's Noddy books. I loved those books as a kid, but now am horrified by the inherent racism. I can't tell myself it is all just a reflection of prevailing sterotypical notions. I find it truly offensive and wonder why Blyton thought it was OK to write in such terms. She was an intelligent woman with a mind of her own. I'm using Blyton as an example because I haven't read Sir Arthur's books. I think the same inability to suspend my belief in equality would apply if I did read his work, and like you, I would not be able to enjoy this book because I would have to suspend my personal ethics in order to do so, and I won't do that, ever. :)

  35. I know you read these a while ago, but I love Conan Doyle and you really have to do a bit of research about him and the Victorian era really to understand Holmes and Watson and his stories.

    A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are Doyle's first books. Study, ironically, only sold four copies. It was this book that made Holmes a household name.

    Doyle got the idea of Holmes from a doctor he studied under when he was in Edinburgh for his fellowship to become a doctor (he was an ophthalmologist.) This doctor would come in, look at his patient and know almost immediately what was wrong with them. While he was bored at work (he didn't quite get a lot of clients where he was in a town near Southampton, UK), he decided to come up with Holmes, based on this doctor, and Watson for his own amusement. A paper liked it and he became a published writer. So, yes, his boredom created the most famous detective of all time.

    Racial tensions were huge at that time, especially in India which is where A Study in Scarlet and parts of Sign take place (I'm sorry if I get this wrong. I haven't read them in some time.) Blacks and Indians were seen as savages, and seen as nothing more than trash. Indians were used as servants in India, with little pay. Blacks were still struggling for work, even though in the UK they received freedom from slavery in the early 1800s (late 1700s. My history is failing on me, sorry.) They did a lot of squalor work.

    Holmes retains a lot of feelings of Doyle. Doyle was one of the first people to see cocaine as an addiction, and wrote several documents on this, but he wasn't taken seriously. So, he gave Holmes this addiction to show this drug was crazy addictive to show his audience this was a drug not to be messed with, as it was a popular medicine given to patients for pain back in the day (along with opium, which Holmes has a liking for, too, and Watson has to save him from that one too.) Holmes has a serious distaste for women; in fact, the one woman who has outsmarted him he won't call by her name. She is THE WOMAN to him. Doyle is a lot like Watson (Doyle even had two wives like Watson), so I'm guessing he made Holmes the opposite of him in terms of manners. Doyle does reveal why Holmes hates women in one story; it's because one minute a woman can be love him and the next they can be throwing her curling tong (which did exist back then) at him. Holmes likes control, order (well, his version of order), schedules, and, most importantly, QUIET.

    The character House from the show House, MD was heavily influenced off of Holmes, so if you know House, you kind of know Holmes (and if you know Wilson, you have Watson.)

    (Um, I am only a tiny bit Holmes obsessed...it doesn't help I am 99.9% like him...minus the addiction.)

    I hope you give Doyle's short story books a try. They are amazing. At least, in my opinion. :)


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